Keith turned to face me from the front of the 4x4 as we bumped and jolted into Freetown. “Remember this Jim” he said, “You’ll only ever get one first impression”.
It was 2001 and I’d just landed at Lungi airport in Sierra Leone. We boarded a clapped-out, soviet era helicopter which whisked us over an expanse of Mangrove swamp to a small landing site on the outskirts of the capital.
Transferring to a car, we started our journey into the city under a blanket of darkness. The air was muggy and thrilling.
I recall the musty smell of damp material, the humidity sticking to my face, the lens of my camera misting over with condensation. But what sticks with me the most is the darkness. Night time in Freetown was many shades darker than I’d ever seen before. It was all enveloping. Holding your hands a few feet away from you face rendered your fingers almost invisible, strange blue shapes shifting in the gloom.
The only light we saw was from the Kerosene lamps burning outside wiggly tin buildings and the flares of headlights flashing by on the road. But that was all. So little light. Darkness is what I remember. Crippling darkness.
There’s a village in Ethiopia called Alduba. It’s population is mostly made up of subsistence farmers and their families. In recent years the rains have become less regular and harder to predict and as a result many residents have had to find alternatives methods of income.
The scattered outcrops of woods nearby make for good firewood but this has its drawbacks. Burning wood for fuel indoors is bad for their health, causing breathing problems and not providing enough light for children to complete their homework.
The women of Alduba sought a solution. They had little firewood but plenty of sunshine.
And so the solar shop was born. Selling a range of solar powered products as well as water, soap and other essentials. They also have a mobile phone charging hub where the wider community can pay for the service to charge their phones. The solar energy shop and any other outside activities they initiate, help to contribute to their collective savings pot.
They also run workshops there - training locals in the installation of solar lamps to power their houses at night. It’s also used as a community space for training workshops, business meetings and, on occasion, an indoor market space.
“We call the solar shop ‘Shaka’” says Aberash, a local woman. “It means morning light”.
“The solar lights benefitted us. At the night time the children use the solar lamp to do their homework. Before they’d come near the smoke of the fire where we were cooking. But now they are grade 8 and it’s most helpful to them. They are attending secondary school. This is the first home me and my husband have together but we’ve constructed another with our money, including my own income from selling this bread. I can also buy books and school uniforms.”
The village is now peppered with houses run on solar energy. The lamps have largely replaced firewood as the primary source of light.
The children of Alduba can study without a risk to their health, deforestation has halved and the burden of women’s workload has reduced. The cost of maintaining the solar lights is less than traditional methods.
I love the dark. I love the vast hug of darkness that greeted me in Sierra Leone. I love the lack of light and peace that comes with the night time.
But I understand that healthy, sustainable lighting is a godsend for people who live in places like Alduba.
Poverty isn’t just a lack of money or material wealth. It can also refer to a lack of opportunity like children being denied the ability to study in an evening.
Small steps, like those taken by the women’s group in Alduba, can sometimes herald the biggest change. Selling sunshine is just the start.